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My girlfriend has a 7-year-old who, when angered, sometimes expresses his anger in a physical manner such as hitting. We are explaining its not okay to hit; that he needs to use his words to express himself. He's coming a long way from where he was.

I've recently had a dream which brought an issue with our method to my attention.

The dream involves him being bullied and I tell the bullies off, only to have the bully's mother confront me in anger, even starting to swing at me. At this point I woke up, because I didn't know how I should respond.

My first instinct was to demonstrate pacifism. I do believe that not fighting back completely defeats fighting in anger. However, it occurred to me that in the case of bullies like in the dream, I would want him to stand up for himself, not let people walk all over him.

Are we sending the wrong message? Should we explain that it is okay to defend yourself, but no more than that - or does that just go without saying? How would you demonstrate how to handle an attacker who may or may not be calmed by pacifist means?

  • Somewhat related: Sometimes it's best to be very familiar with your local laws, especially concerning self-defense. If someone is attacking you, what are your legal rights? If another child is attacking yours, what are his rights? (In some school districts, everyone involved in a fight gets punished, even the victim) – user11394 Apr 2 '15 at 14:48
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Standing up for yourself doesn't have to involve violence - and certainly in most cases should not. I suppose if I were attacked by someone and had literally no viable alternative, I would fight back, but in general I would almost always have a viable alternative.

That's the key for children in this kind of situation. You should teach him to stand up for himself. You should also teach him how to stand up for himself. This isn't particularly different from teaching him how to express his anger in nonviolent ways, which is a pretty hard thing to explain to a child; in both cases it's a matter of providing tools for dealing with a situation.

The best way to avoid physical confrontations that aren't avoidable by truly pacifist means is probably to learn martial arts techniques for countering an opponent. I'm not an expert in martial arts (but I think we have one or two on the board), but from what I do know, some martial arts focus on defending yourself without attacking. Learning to block and counter attacks gives you the chance to disengage and leave, or at least to have others notice and break up the conflict.

Other tools of course are important for avoiding getting in that situation in the first place. In the case of bullying, in the long term I would hope he would ask for help, either from a teacher or his parents. This doesn't mean you have to intervene for him, but I would hope he'd ask for help figuring out how to deal with it.

In the short term, if the bully is physically attacking him, running away is a perfectly valid solution; run away, then address it with the proper authority. That's hard for a child to do, particularly one who is capable of defending himself, but given the penalties for fighting back - most schools suspend automatically for fighting, at least in the US, regardless of aggressor - it's the best.

For other sorts of physical or mental abuse, there are many different tactics that are appropriate. Particularly effective is relying on his group of friends for support; bullies are unlikely to be effective when you are in a group, as they can't really physically win that confrontation unless they're in a bigger group - and even then, having the support of your friends often can give you enough strength to withstand them as long as it doesn't get to physical blows. Ignoring also works well; bullies get bored in many cases if their bullying doesn't have an effect on you. If you're in a group, this is easier.

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    I've always told my kids not to hit... first. Stand up for yourself and what you want but don't shove, punch, or kick. But, if the other person does that to you then you really should hit back or they'll just do it again some other time because now they know you won't fight back. I've explained to them that they could still get in trouble at school for breaking school rules (and would have to suffer the consequences) but they wouldn't be in trouble with me. – Brian White Apr 2 '15 at 21:32
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@Joe's answer is excellent but I believe that the real question here lies more in how to teach a child when violence is unacceptable vs. when it may be ok. I believe that it comes down to the motivations behind the violence.

Using violence out of frustration or anger or a desire to have power over others is wrong. Being the aggressor or instigator of a violent conflict is wrong. What you are teaching this boy is right, in that hitting people because you are mad is wrong.

The situation where someone else takes a swing at you and you have to defend yourself is different and the distinction is important (and is really what you need to teach this kid). Your friend's son needs to know that he should always try to avoid and diffuse conflict through non-violent means. He also needs to know that sometimes that just won't work and that defending himself is acceptable. Defending means getting the fight to stop, not letting someone take a swing at you then using that as an excuse to beat them to a pulp. (Again, this turns back to being aggressive, even tho there was a "reason".)

As an example, growing up if I had gotten in a fight at school and got suspended the amount of trouble I got in would have been related to why I fought. If I instigated the fight there would have been hell to pay when I got home. If all I did was defend myself I wouldn't have gotten in any trouble at all with my parents.

Ultimately, he needs to learn that violence is a last, and only a last, resort. And even then to only use a minimal amount.

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